By: Eric Ruble
Deep in South Los Angeles lies 10 acres of almost completely empty land. For three decades, developers have proposed filling the vacant lot, also known as the Lanzit Opportunity Site. But every proposal has been rejected for the same reason: little community support.
For their final capstone projects, USC Price Master’s of Urban Planning (MUP) students were tasked with creating a plan for the neglected site that would yield long-term success for both the Watts community and the project’s stakeholders.
This is the first time second-year MUP students have been asked to propose a comprehensive plan for the site, which is located roughly 1.2 miles northeast of the 105/110 freeway interchange.
Previously, students took a more traditional exam with written and oral components before graduation. This shift invited a more dynamic result from those who took the class, shared Professor Deepak Bahl. “Instead of giving a one-dimensional response, you need to give a more holistic response.”
The beginning: Community input is key
For the first half of the new course, students proposed their own plans for the Lanzit site. In the second half, they collaborated with other MUP students from various concentrations to develop an entirely new plan combining their ideas.
“[It] allowed them to each bring their strengths and their expertise to create a more well-rounded project,” said Professor Clare Kelley, who instructed the course with Bahl. “I think it better reflects what it’s like to actually be a professional practitioner in planning, whether that’s on the public, private or nonprofit side.”
While students welcomed the chance to bring something unique to the uninhabited parcel, they were mindful to not propose anything prescriptive. Instead, they wanted to ensure people who live nearby would approve of their ideas.
“I think about this idea of how to develop the people in a community and not go out to just try to develop the land and the property in a community,” said Jesi Harris, whose concentration within the MUP degree is Environmental Planning and Analysis.
To gain a better understanding of the local neighborhoods’ needs, Bahl and Kelley invited guest speakers to the virtual class. They included representatives from the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, BRIDGE Housing (a developer) and Los Angeles City Planning.
“It was really neat that even though those actors didn’t necessarily work together with us on this project, we got to hear from all those different perspectives,” said Nick Tarpey, studying for a Housing and Real Estate Development concentration within his major.
The obstacles: Transportation, employment and public health
Beyond a mandate to serve the community, the project presented several challenging goals. Among the most difficult was providing sufficient parking. Students knew people would often drive to the retail businesses at the site, but they didn’t want to dedicate too much of the area to surface parking.
“If it’s too much parking, you just can’t afford to build the project,” Harris said.
Harris proposed “unbundled” parking for apartment units at the site. In other words, parking spots were available to residents but were not automatically attached to each unit, as is common in much of Los Angeles. Residents needing a parking space would pay an additional fee each month, while others would not.
“It’s putting the burden on people who need the expensive infrastructure,” Harris said.
Through the guest speakers, students learned a key need in the community is not just employment opportunities, but jobs that have potential for long-term career growth.
Students want the project to be an anchor for entrepreneurship.
Harris’ proposal included a co-op grocery store. Meanwhile, Alex Mullenix and his team proposed building a space dubbed the “Watts Mercado.” Inspired by the Mercado la Paloma near USC’s University Park campus, Watts Mercado would provide a place where people could establish small businesses without having to cut through local government’s red tape.
“There can be so many barriers to entry for people who are forming a small business in Los Angeles, so creating those entry spaces is really important,” Mullenix said.
Through it all is the thread of public health. The Lanzit site is in a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) where there is a substantial lack of doctors, nurses and others in the medical field.
“As a group, we thought that was something really important we should address,” said David Mariscal, who was in the Economic Development concentration.
His group’s proposal includes a health clinic to treat non-emergency, chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular issues.
“There has been this historic distrust and overburdening of hospitals systems in the South Los Angeles area, especially near Watts,” Mariscal said. “The area does really need a lot more investment in public health services.”
In many cases, students from one concentration would highlight an issue other students may not have even noticed. For example, Reaghan Murphy, whose concentration is Mobility and Transportation Planning, let her teammates know their initial plan didn’t include a wide enough turning radius for freight vehicles delivering goods to the site.
“Our concentrations are so distinct from one another, and if you don’t take any electives in another concentration, you’re really not aware of what the other folks in the program are learning,” Murphy said. “So, this was a really neat tapping experience and a really awesome opportunity to work on a project collaboratively across concentrations and across disciplines.”
The result: Proposals with potential
Perhaps the biggest challenge students faced? Working with peers studying different concentrations within the MUP program.
“I would hope that one of the takeaways for the students would be really seeing how valuable collaboration is in planning and seeing the strength that comes from different people coming together,” Kelley said.
Ultimately, the project delivered on its intended purpose: giving students a challenge they will soon face in the workforce.
“There’s nothing hypothetical about it,” Bahl said.
In presenting a real site with real challenges, Price students applied their diverse experiences to produce a cohesive product the community would not only allow – but embrace.